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A. J. Hayes
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To The Earth We Return

 

A.J. Hayes

 

 

So, the boss lady buried her kid

beneath the plum tree in her backyard

last week. Cancer got him. Only forty-eight

and he didn't go easy. She feels closer to him there,

his ashes spun around and through the deep wrought roots.

She'll see him, she says, in pink spring blossoms

and dark barked curve of winter branches.

She takes comfort in that so I don't say much.

But, she makes jars of jam from those plums

every summer. Makes me wonder what I'll do next July

when she hands me mine.

 

 

 

A Moon Like Tarnished Silver

 

 

A.J. Hayes

 

 

Justice Marshall McComb, 82, did not contest

his wife's petition to institutionalize him after she

told the court her husband is “obsessed with the

moon. He gets quite excited by it . . . . He enjoys it"

she said. "But it's not a normal enjoyment of the moon."

(Old Milbrae Weekly Journal, November 29th, 2010)

 

                  

When she got back from court she curled up

in the comfortable old chair, gave a low,

satisfied snort and watched the moon,

full-bellied and bright, ascend the sky.

It wasn't the moon that ended it.

Nor was it the nights he spent away.

 

After all, she was always there when,

exhausted and hungry for slumber, he returned.

It was she who washed the blood from his muzzle

and held him close until dawn changed things.

It was she who cleaned his silver fur from the

shower drain and laved the mud from between

his toes while he slept. The perfect mate . . .

until she saw the bite mark on his throat, smelled

the musk that harsh brown soap could not expunge.

 

Vixen, she thought.

 

I stay, she thought, and let your moon lead you on the

silver trails. I stay and will not let the night sounds call me.

I stay to protect you. To protect us. I stay.

And now, this.

 

She settled deeper into the warm heart

of the chair, tucked her nose beneath her tail,

sighed once and dreamed of the moon, his moon,

caught between cold iron bars and stout steel walls, forever.

 

 

 

Poets Anthem

 

AJ Hayes

 

 

jupiter has a red spot that

mars its creamy serenity

science says it’s a raging storm

of unimaginable fury

i say

no its not unimaginable its

perfectly imaginable just

look at anyone’s eyes on the

street on the bus in your bed

i say

the god planet doesn’t have

that market cornered there’s

other hearts guts brains souls

beating to the lightning

i say

reach up down through where

ever and find the lava inside plunge

your hands into it feel the weight

of fire and offer it to the sun

i say

paint the signs join the lines ink

your body ink the page ink the air

with words with deeds with your

red raging refusal to simply accept

i say

history is incest fucking its own

babies over and over and over

with bullshit for pablum and barbed

wire rules to make sure we believe

i say

let our fire melt the tar pit let our

song crack the sky let our voice shout

the stars down let the darkness see

our teeth and tremble are you with me

 

 

thegift.jpg

The Gift

 

by

 

AJ Hayes

 

 

When I opened the door, he was sitting by the window, watching the midnight rain. He didn't turn, just watched the streetlamps pushing out tarnished light against the winter darkness.

 

“Hello, Father,” I said.

 

“Hello, my son.”

 

His voice was the same; soft and weighted with too many confessions, too much pain.

 

A blinking ruby light at the end of the narrow room drew me like a moth. I gently parted the filmy curtains and looked at the small figure in the big white bed.

 

“What's her name?”

 

His Roman collar gleamed in the dim hospital light.

 

“Her name's Susan. Just a girl. Eighteen.”

 

I moved my eyes over the wreckage of her face; the symmetry of modifications he'd done to her.

 

“Evidently he likes clowns,” I said.

 

He didn't answer. Only the dry rasp of his rosary.

 

“I don't know if I can do this, Father. I've been away a long time.”

 

As always, he stared straight into my soul.

 

“No modesty, Seamus.” 

 

“I'll need time.”

 

He smiled his gentle smile.

#

 

The ancient church murmured to itself as I waited. After a while, the confessional door opened. When the candlelight played softly across her face, I blinked. She was beautiful, perfect. But, as they sat beside me in the worn wooden pew, I saw a kind of vacancy, an absence of light, in her moss-green eyes.

 

“Susan,” the old priest said, “this is Seamus.”

 

She glanced at me slant-wise, then quickly away.

 

“You were there that night . . . in the hospital.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You saw me. What he did to me.”

 

“Yes. You look better now. ”

 

Again the slanting glance. The empty eyes darting away.

 

“Do I? I don't know. I don't look in mirrors anymore.”

 

The priest shifted his weight, touched the girl's shoulder.

 

“Tell him why, child.”

 

“Because I'm afraid. Afraid if I look in a mirror, I'll see him. Behind me. Right behind me. Closer than breathing. Closer than—”

 

The old man touched her arm again.

 

“Tell him what he said when he left you on the hospital lawn.”

 

“He said—” Her voice broke in two. “He said . . . ‘I'll see you again.’ ”

 

He nodded, face hidden in shadow.

 

“Seamus has something for you,” he said.

 

She took the tight-grained cedar box from me.

 

“What is it?”

 

“A gift.”

 

I left them there in the old murmuring church, outlined by candlelight, in the soft darkness.

 

#

 

I'd worked very hard to make it the best I could. I'd searched the fabric shops for days looking for just the right weight and color of velvet for the box lining. It had taken a week to shape the cedar properly. I'd had a hard time finding the exact ink to freshen and preserve the tattoo and an equally tough search acquiring the exact shade of dye for his mustache and eyebrows . I won't even go into the long, long hours I spent tanning his leather, working it thin and smooth. In the end, though, it was worth it. The eyeholes, thanks to the infinite ebony of the velvet backing, were black as the rivers of hell. The eyebrows and mustache blonde as a surfer girl's hair. The thick lips collagen-pumped into lifelike cruelty. I'd even smoothed out the deep creases around his mouth from all the screaming he'd done. While he still could scream. Before I removed his face.

 

#

 

I was in the park when my cell rang. The summer was in full swing and sunlight washed over me like a warm tropic sea. I was sipping an espresso and watching a flock of crows badgering a hawk.

 

“Hello, Father,” I said. “Did she like my gift?”

 

“I don't know that ‘liked’ is the word for it, Seamus. But it healed the scar on her soul.”

 

“Yeah?” I said.

 

I could picture the smile on his deep-lined face.

 

“Yesterday she bought a mirror,” he said.

 

 

workingchristmas.jpg

Working Christmas

 

by

 

AJ Hayes

 

 

My boots are letting ice water in, some snow has found its way down my collar and a bug of some kind keeps stinging me under my thermals. I stay still and take it.  Another fucking Christmas on the job.

 

Come on! I think. Open the damn curtains.

 

I've got the picture window framed perfectly in the scope. The butt of the fifty caliber Barrett M95 sniper rifle nestles into my shoulder like a coed's head. The scope shows me every detail sharp and clear, like I'm ten feet away instead of better than a half mile off.  

 

A curl of smoke lazes from the chimney of the red brick house.

 

Great, I think, the stockings are hung, the fire's started. Just pull the fucking curtains! The big bad wolf wants to see your ass.

 

Just like Santa heard my wish, the drapes pull apart and the target is framed full on in the window.  Wearing a bright red bathrobe, yet. Thank you, Mr. Claus.

 

I slowly take up the slack in the trigger, steady my breathing and slow my heart rate. Only a quarter ounce more pressure and the big dog barks. Easy, I think. Easy does it. Only another gram of trigger pull and . . .

 

Fuck!

 

Unless he's grown another couple of heads, he's holding two kids in his arms. Young ones, maybe three or four years old. The target smiles at them. Kisses their foreheads. Grins like a goon. I swing the scope up, get a gander at the rest of the room. Shit. Shit. Shit. The whole damn family's there: young men and women, lots of kids, a couple of infants. All laughing and happy. All watching Grandpa.

 

Boss didn't say he'd have family there.

 

I picture the carnage. Picture his head exploding. Bone, blood, and brains scattering across the room. Spattering everybody's faces with little bits of Grandpa. Soaking them with his blood. That would be a picture all of them would see in their dreams as long as they lived. Every Christmas card, every tree, every fucking strip mall Santa would bring back the old man standing there with no head.

 

I ease off the trigger and lower the Barrett. I can't do it. I can't put that into all their lives forever. Not on Christmas Day, for fuck's sake! Any other day, sure. But not this day. I slide the weapon back in its case, slip down the reverse slope to the van where my field kit is and spend some time improvising.

 

All of the morning and most of the afternoon is gone before I pull the van up in front of the house. I grab the package I'd found when I folded the dead postal worker into the back of his truck and trudge up the driveway. It's spitting snow again, twilight's falling thick and hard to see through.

 

When I ring the doorbell, one of the kids answers it. She's pretty. About twelve with black hair and intense blue eyes. One of those Irish complexions that run to milk-white skin and a thousand freckles. I touch my cap with my index finger.

 

"Hello, Miss," I say. "Is there an adult here?"

 

She nods and runs into the living room.

 

The old man's got a drink in his hand. Double something over ice in an old-fashioned glass. His cheeks have the glow that whiskey and happiness bring.

 

"Hello," he says. "Merry Christmas, son."

 

"Good evening, sir," I say, looking at the mailing label. "Are you Arthur Franchetti?"

 

A couple or three of the mouse-sized kids are crowding up behind him, all talking at once.

 

"Who's it from, Grampa?"

 

"Yeah, who?"

 

"Boy! That's a really big box."

 

"Who sent it, Grampa?"

 

The old guy chuckles and studies the label.

 

"Why it appears to be from F.A.O. Schwartz, the world's largest toy store all the way back in New York City."

 

He winks at me.

 

"And," he says to the kids. "It seems to be from . . ." He squints at the label, wiggling his eyebrows. "From Santa!"

 

All of them go nuts, yelling, squealing, and tugging at the old guy's robe.

 

"Can we open it?"

 

"Yeah, can we open it now?"

 

"Please, Grampa."

 

"Please!"

 

"Sure we can, kids," he says. "Just let me sign for it so it will be legal." He hands them the package and they grunt and woof as they carry it into the room."

 

"Don't open it until I get there," the old guys yells after them. He turns back to me and signs the postal receipt.

 

"Thank you, sir," I say and hand him his copy. "Merry Christmas."

 

He reaches into the pocket of his robe and hands me a couple of twenties. "Thank you for giving up your Christmas to deliver this. Hell, gimme those back."

 

I hand him back the twenties and he replaces them with a couple of fifties.

 

"There," he says. "That's better. It's Christmas, fer chri'sake."

 

I touch the brim of my postal cap.

 

"Just part of the job, sir." I say. "But thank you."

 

He closes the door and I walk back to the stolen truck. I give it a few seconds to allow time for the family to cluster close around the surprise present then I press the detonator.

 

The house shudders. A few bricks fly out of the wall and all the windows shoot white-hot flame ten feet outside. The brick structure absorbs most of the flames and all of the concussion wave. The Three Pigs were right. Bricks are a shitload stronger than most other materials.

 

Unfortunately for the people inside the house, that means the explosion and fire are magnified ten times or more. With force and heat like that, there's literally no time. It's an instant. The space between tick and tock. One moment they're alive and happy. The next they're sleeping for eternity. No bad dreams of Grandpa with no head. No fucked-up lives full of tranquillizers and nervous breakdowns and night terrors and screwed-up marriages and suicide and drugs and abuse and all that shit. Just sleep, long and quiet. They came out okay, considering.

 

Me, too. No vengeful family members to look over my shoulder for.

 

Boss will be happy.  He wanted it messy. And he wanted it big. The fifty caliber head shot would have been messy all right—but nowhere near as big as blowing the whole damn family into flaming bits of bone.

 

Actually, I think I'll probably get a bonus for creativity. Boss likes creativity.

 

I drive away in the clearing snow. A few stars break through the clouds and shine down hard and bright. 

 

A pretty good Christmas all around, I think.

 

Ho. Ho. Ho.

 

 

 

Sex

 

by AJ Hayes

 

 

Reminds me of bananas, well

some of it does. Another part screams

coconut cream – but

not so loud as you think.

Then.

There's produce. Shall we talk

zucchini or squash or—God help

me—cashews. Moving on. Quit

laughing. Bitch. Goddess.

Let's.

Mention auto mechanics. Engines

and gears and the small, rounded button

that starts it all. Well hidden.

Fortunately, I know where it is.

There.

See? One push and VAROOM!

All kinds of parts: rods, pistons, soft

pneumatics, velvet oils—synthetic

and natural—My face is wet. I don't mind.

Watching.

Old movies. Black and white and grainy.

Trains ramming into tunnels fast and faster.

Wash of waves breaking on black sand. In and

out. Colorless fireworks on an ebony sky.

Listening.

To the rush tumble gasp of you in my ear.

Sharp stereo Donna Summer moans.

Janice Joplin rag nasty whispering: More.

The needle sussurating in the groove.

Geography.

The Mountain of Love. Pale

peaks of the Moon, stiffly capped

in pink, erect. Hidden Valley, ermine soft

from which the honeyed river flows.

Culture.

The Bard: To fuck or not to fuck

there is no question. Kit Marlow: Ah

sweet Helen make me immortal

with your tongue. Oedipus: Motherfucker!

Chaos.

Your hips lifting, taking my face with them.

Your thighs tight as velveted steel on my

back. Teeth in/on/my/your/our/neck/

tit/dick/clit/tongue/mouth. AHHH!

Order:

2 broccoli chicken with rice. $12.50

2 Egg roll. $5.50

2 crispy beef $10.80

Delivery. No Charge. Eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

babyboy.jpg

Baby Boy

 

by AJ Hayes

 

 

 

Little Willie was feeling pretty mellow despite the snow falling, heavy and gray, in the alley. It had gone pretty good. The quick half turn just as he passed the skinny, Santa-hatted ex-tweaker. The fast right cross with all of his three hundred pounds behind it knocked her skanky ass over backward. The chain suspending the small, black kettle from its tripod snapping just right. His escape to the dark at the edge of the parking lot. All that went just as planned. The only complication was when the doper bitch jumped to her feet and, screaming like a parrot from hell, chased him into the shadows. Only one choice then.

 

He had spun real fast and shoved his knife about six inches into her belly. That had stopped the screeching like flipping a light switch. It flipped her switch too, he reckoned. She had dropped limp and still, face down. He hoped she wasn't dead. That would mean a lot more shit in his life than petty theft and assault. Lot more cops. He hoped the bitch got up and walked away.

 

Didn't really matter, he thought, snuggling back against the rough bricks of the alley, wedged way back between the two rusted-out dumpsters. He'd made the get gone and caught up with his main man on the sidewalk. Five minutes later, he was holding and hidden. He'd been kind of surprised that it went down that easy. After all, he'd stiffed the guy on another deal just last week. But it was Christmas Eve and he had to get high.

 

Just like when his old man got shot.

Just like when his mama hit the big OD.

Just like when his baby sister got taken away

Just like when Connie dumped him for another woman.

Just like when he lost his job.

Just like when he'd got thumped out of the gang.

Just like when the Raiders lost.

Just like all the other just likes.

 

The cook up went smooth. Zippo flame melted it right down. He was about to draw the rich brown fluid into his rig when a shadow blocked the light. He looked up quickly.

 

It was the bell ringer, leaned up against the dumpster; head held funny, as though her neck was too weak to hold it up. The wet snow had plastered her stringy, black hair down over her face. She pulled herself down the edge of the trash bin, every small step costing her, and slid down the bricks to sit beside him.

 

"What you want, bitch?" he said.

 

"You ain't gonna stick me again, are you?”

 

"Nah. Don't look like you any danger. What you want?"

 

She tried to smile. It didn't work.

 

"I thought since you killed me . . ." She pulled her hand away from her ribcage and showed him the jetting pulse of a cut artery, "you might let me get a taste."

 

Willie eyed her, assaying the chance she was trying to con him. Decided not. Bitch was dying, all right. His nose told him she'd already shit her pants. She was checking out right while they were talking.

 

He remembered a movie his Mama took him to see once, back when she was clean. Something about second chances and treating people right. He remembered that the old guy in the film made out pretty good at the end.  Who knows? he thought. Man might need a solid on the books someday.

 

"Sure," he said. "One time only. It's Christmas."

 

He filled the spike, tapped the bubbles out. Fixed her in the chicken-bone thin arm she held out. She shuddered and leaned back against the bricks. Her eyes going deep and far away.

 

"Hoo, baby boy, that's good. Oh that's good," she said, slow and soft. "That's real good."

 

Willie's eyes widened. Baby Boy. She said it just like his mama did. He knew Mama was dead. Had held her in his arms while she died. But it felt so good to hear that name again. Said like that. He hurried to join her in the rush.

 

"Call me ‘Baby Boy’ again," he said.

 

She didn't say anything. Her hair had fallen all across her face.

 

"Come on," Willie said. "Call me ‘Baby Boy’ again, like you did just now. Please."

 

He put his arm around her. Felt the frail sticks of her shoulders.

 

Felt the hard second rush of the hot-shot hit him. Felt the fire run though his body.

 

"Mama," he breathed out soft. "Mama."

 

 Only the fast falling snow heard him.

 

 


theunit.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright, 2013

The Unit

 

by AJ Hayes

 

 

It was warm for November. It wasn't late, but all the houses on our block had their windows and doors closed tight as usual. No one on the block wanted to know what happened on our street. But they all did. The trick or treaters knew. Their parents knew. And so did we.

 

When we heard Tommy screaming through the night all the way down the block, we knew we had to stop it. We had to get him. Didn't want to. Had to. We all had it pretty rough, but not as bad as Tommy. It was kind of unspoken but we all knew Tommy wasn't going to make it. At his house, it was escalating fast and we figured that the next time, it would end everything for him. And the next time was not far off. We knew stuff like that. Felt it in our bones. See, Me and Tommy and Jake and Mikey, we were The Unit. Had been for as long as we could remember—and we protected our own. We had to. Nobody else would.

 

We snuck in Tommy's house, dark and silent now except for Tommy's quiet sobbing into his pillow. Jake rigged the equipment while Mikey and I stood watch at the head of the steep staircase.

 

When Jake was done, we tiptoed to the silent living room. Then we made all the racket we could. We knew he would be out of the bed and down the stairs in an instant.

 

 The papers were full of it: “Police Chief Clifford Davis Killed In Accidental Fall. The Chief is survived by his wife, Dorothy and his son, Thomas Lee (eight).”

 

They didn't mention Tommy's bruises and blackened eyes. Or any of the fresh cuts on his back.  Didn't mention our trip wire on the stairs or the blackjack Jake used to finish the mission. I guess Mrs. Davis hid the wire and the blackjack before she called the ambulance. She never mentioned us. We didn't figure she would. She had her own collection of scars.

 

Time passed. Tommy's cuts healed. Turned into more old scars. We all had them. Still do. But we all got to grow up, too. Because we were The Unit. And we protected our own. And we survived.

 

 

 

AJ Hayes lives in a small town near San Diego, California. His stories and poems been published in venues like Yellow Mama, Eaten Alive, A Twist Of Noir, Shotgun Honey, Black Heart Magazine's Noir Issue. The Hard-Nosed Sleuth, Apollo's Lyre, Flashshot, Thrillers Killers And Chillers, Near To The Knuckle, Skin Diver Magazine, Pulp Ink. He has stories in Luca Veste's Off The Record 1 and 2 anthologies and Katherine Tomlinson's Nightfalls collection. He likes to write about stuff and thinks it's nice to be able to fool some of the people some of the time—well, P.T. Barnum thought that first but AJ thinks so too.

In Association with Fossil Publications